In one of the deadliest terror attacks in Jammu and Kashmir's three decades of militancy, a Jaish suicide bomber rammed an explosives-laden vehicle into a CRPF bus in Pulwama district, killing at least 40 personnel and leaving many critically wounded on Thursday.
More than 2,500 Central Reserve Police Force personnel, many of them returning from leave to rejoin duty in the Valley, were travelling in the convoy of 78 vehicles when they were ambushed on the Srinagar-Jammu highway at Latoomode in Awantipora.
“The jawans were returning from leave,” said Ashish Kumar Jha, CRPF spokesperson in Jammu.
“A thorough probe will be conducted but such a large convoy is visible from a distance itself… Points of halt and resuming journey of such convoys are always fixed,” Jha added.
According to reports, the attack took place nearly 30 km short of its destination.
The Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) has claimed responsibility for the horror and released a video clip of the suicide bomber, a 'commander' identified as Adil Ahmad Dar, which it claimed was shot before the young man carried out the strike in Lethpora.
Police sources in a statement said that Dar, was driving a vehicle packed with over 350 kg of explosives on the wrong side of the road and hit the bus, in which estimated 35-44 personnel were travelling.
"There are no survivors from the bus," officials said, adding that they were yet to ascertain exactly how many people were on the bus.
According to reports, the powerful explosion, which reduced the bus to a mangled heap of iron, was heard many kilometres away, including in some parts of Srinagar adjoining Pulwama district.
"Body parts could be seen strewn around the area," locals told media.
Speaking to media, officials said that the bodies are dismembered and mutilated.
"The bodies are dismembered and mutilated making it difficult for doctors to give the exact number of casualties," a senior security establishment official told PTI.
The bus that was the focus of the attack belongs to the 76th battalion of the force.
"It was a large convoy and about 2,500 personnel were travelling in multiple vehicles. Some shots were also fired at the convoy," CRPF DG R R Bhatnagar told PTI.
The Cabinet Committee on Security will meet Friday morning to discuss the security situation in Jammu and Kashmir against the backdrop of the attack, sources said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who spoke to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and top officials after the attack, termed it despicable and asserted that the sacrifices of security personnel will not go in vain.
In a statement, Singh said the government is determined to foil the designs of those who want to disrupt peace through such a terror attack "sponsored and sheltered by Pakistan".
"Jaish-e-Mohammed has carried out this terror attack. We assure the country that we will undertake whatever it takes to avenge this," he said.
His deputy Kiren Rijiju said the "cowardly" attack will not go unpunished and it will be avenged in "all way possible".
The convoy had started from Jammu around 3.30 am and was supposed to reach Srinagar before sunset, officials said.
The number of personnel travelling back to the Valley was high as there was no movement on the highway for the last two to three days because of bad weather and other administrative reasons, they said.
Usually, about 1,000 personnel are part of a convoy but this time it was a total of 2,547 personnel.
A road opening party was deployed and the convoy had armoured counter-terror vehicles, officials said.
As news of the magnitude of the attack came in, political leaders from across the spectrum spoke out in condemnation and to condole the deaths of the security personnel.
Former Jammu and Kashmir chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti also condemned the attack in the strongest terms.
Rajnath Singh, who also spoke to Governor Satya Pal Malik and took stock of the situation, cancelled his engagements in Bihar on Friday. Union Home Secretary Rajiv Gauba cut short his visit to Bhutan.
A team of National Investigation Agency and National Security Guards will leave for Kashmir Friday morning to assist in the investigation.
This was the first suicide car bomb attack in Kashmir since the 2001 strike on the Legislative Assembly in which 41 people, including three suicide attackers, were killed.
The scene of Thursday's attack is not very far from the Commando Training Centre at Lethpora, which was stormed by Jaish militants on December 31, 2017, killing five CRPF personnel.
The Srinagar-Jammu national highway has been a favoured route for militants to target security forces.
The CRPF bore the brunt of a militant attack at Pampore, less than seven km from Lethpora, in June 2016, losing eight jawans while 22 others sustained injuries.
In an attack on the Uri military base in September 2016, Jaish militants killed 18 Army jawans and injured dozens of others. The ferocity of the attack led to India conducting a surgical strike against Pakistan.